Realism is a word that has become synonymous with video games in recent years. Whether it pertains to graphics, physics or AI, it seems that no game these days can afford not to tip its virtual hat towards realism. Evolution GT, Milestone's follow up to the underachieving S.C.A.R., tips its hat further than most.
When playing Evolution GT, the first thing to strike you is that it's very good looking, for a PS2 game. Real-time shadows, specular effects, reflections from water-coated road surfaces and nicely detailed environment textures all add to the atmosphere, and despite the eye candy, the frame rate is nice and healthy, even in split-screen multiplayer - no slideshows here. The second thing that strikes you is just how good the handling model is. The developers' claims that all the cars have 80 different parameters that contribute to their handling and that they have derived the handling from telemetry taken from real cars racing around the real tracks featured in the game, might have sounded farfetched, but you can tell they weren't kidding. The physics are excellent, yet don't stray over the line from punishing to unplayable. You can feel that the cars have weight and momentum, and the level of traction measurably differs according to the track surface and the camber of the road.
This is perhaps most obvious at the infamous 'Corkscrew' turn at Laguna Seca: it's a blind, off-camber complex of back-to-back 90-degree turns, a left and then a right, with the elevation of the track dropping a good ten metres between the two turns. It's as daunting a corner as you'll find in world motorsport: if you start braking after you've passed the blind crest 200 metres before the corner, prepare to pay a visit to the welcoming quagmire of the gravel trap, or worse, the crushingly unwelcome embrace of the crash barrier. Wet races have also been implemented in the game, too; for those of you familiar with the differences between wet and dry conditions in Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix series, Evolution GT's wet race modelling is easily on a par with that, if not better. Combine wet conditions with tracks like Laguna Seca and corners like the Corkscrew... let's just say that you should be prepared to get intimate with the crash barriers, unless you're very, very careful.
'The Pagani Zonda F is an absolute monster, and a real handful in full simulation mode, even with a steering wheel.'
Laguna Seca is just one of the licensed race tracks in the game; others include the Grand Prix circuit at Hockenheim in Germany, plus the long and short versions of the UK's Donington raceway. Two other categories of track are featured: six tracks in three countryside locations (the Cote d'Azur, Corsica and the Scottish Highlands), plus long and short street circuits set in Milan, Florence, London, Barcelona and Berlin. The representation of the official race circuits is as meticulous as you'll find in any of the game's contemporaries, such as Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo 4, and the track design of the Country and City tracks is excellent, with a nice balance of fast and slow corners, plus a good mix of straights and elevation changes. A little bit of artistic license has been used with the realism of the layout of the City tracks in particular, but the Highland and London tracks particularly impress, with the London tracks especially showing off the game's physics and handling models. Brushing the wall in the tunnel leading up to Tower Bridge will demonstrate just how good the game's physics are, with the reduced pressure of the airflow between the wall of the tunnel and the side of the car inducing enough suction to pull the car into the barrier until you slow enough to negate the effect. Even more impressively, Evolution GT's physics engine will even allow you to roll the car you are driving, as Dave, the game's UK PR ably (if unintentionally) demonstrated to a round of ironic applause and cheering from the assembled journalists as he raced his Audi A4 touring car through Westminster on the big screen.
It's probably fair to say that Evolution GT is more simulation than arcade game. The game really comes alive when you turn off the driving aids and sit down behind a steering wheel and pedals, but that's not to say casual players won't find anything to enjoy. The ABS and Traction Control driving aids, plus additional steering help, is available for players restricted to gamepads, which ensures that the game's handling is never as unforgiving as a more dedicated simulation-based racer, such as Forza Motorsport. Handling is uniformly good with an individual feel to each car, and the more powerful rear-wheel drive cars are particularly prone to throttle-down oversteer: the Pagani Zonda F is an absolute monster, and a real handful in full simulation mode, even with a steering wheel. The game does feel a little more prone to understeer when you use the external car views, though this may just be a consequence of being able to judge the braking and turn in points of corners better from the bumper camera view. The all-important sense of speed you get from the game is well judged, also. You can really feel how sluggish a Seat Leon hot hatch feels in acceleration and handling compared to a racing variant of a TVR Tuscan.
Whilst the selection of cars available doesn't rival those found in games like Forza or GT4, there's still a pleasing level of diversity. The Touring Cars and the two models of Zonda are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, but there's still a lot of fun to be had thrashing a Mercedes Benz SLK down the waterfront at the Cote d'Azur in Quick Race mode.
The Career mode, however, forms the core part of the game, and it's here that we need to talk about the game's difficulty level and AI. The AI of the CPU drivers is built around S.C.A.R.'s controversial RPG element, which also features in Evolution GT. Before you all click away to look at Dilbert or something, let me reassure you that the RPG system has been tweaked to make it work a whole lot more transparently. By assigning each CPU driver individual attributes in skills such as anticipation, steering precision, brake timing and so on, and ensuring that AI drivers accrue experience at a rate according to their performance in races, Milestone has tried to ensure that the playing field stays as level as possible throughout a player's career. When talking to Simone Bechini, the game's producer, the importance of ensuring that the game's AI produced "racers, not robots" was of critical importance. The designers have limited the AI's knowledge of the racing environment and applied the same physical limitations on their cars as on the player's to prevent the AI from 'cheating'.
'Certain drivers adopt defensive, weaving tactics more quickly than others, whilst other AIs will simply capitulate and move over.'
When honing the AI, over 100,000 laps on each circuit were raced by the AIs to test the designer's official racing line on the circuit, and to ensure that each AI deviates from that perfect racing line in places on every single lap. Stirling Moss (a 16-time Grand Prix winner in the 1950s and 1960s) memorably once said that he'd never driven a perfect lap throughout his whole racing career, which demonstrates how important this 'imperfection' in the AI is. With the AI's skill statistics driving their behaviour, this allows you to see a consistency in how particular AI drivers will react from race to race and from season to season: certain drivers adopt defensive, weaving tactics more quickly than others, whilst other AIs will simply capitulate and move over. It would be nice to see AIs adopt Yvan Muller/Jason Plato style grudges, should you keep deliberately shunting them off in races, but with the game so close to completion now, this may not make it into the code before the release.
A few question marks still remain over the long-term impact of the RPG system on the quality of the racing experience in Career mode, but initial impressions are favourable. The 'Tiger Effect' from S.C.A.R reappears, despite the mixed critical reaction. For the uninitiated, the 'Tiger Effect' takes its name from 'Tigering', a term for when a racing driver is so tuned into the race, they can supernaturally anticipate where trouble might occur on the road - the racing tutorial shows an example of this in a video from a race in the Swedish Touring Car championship, which is quite amazing to watch. Implemented in the game, the 'Tiger Effect' manifests itself as a Prince of Persia-style time rewind. It may sound like an odd concept, and indeed, it is for a racing game, but I found that it does work in context, and will be a particularly useful feature for casual gamers, since the AIs aren't afraid to adopt roughhousing tactics and the initial learning curve is quite steep. As you play the game more, and you gain the skills to match the AI racers on innate driving ability alone, the theory is that the 'Tiger Effect' will be an ability you will need to use less and less.
The final reservation lingering over Evolution GT from S.C.A.R.'s design principles is the ability to intimidate and be intimidated by drivers. Whilst an interesting and worthwhile principle in theory and a useful tactic in race practice, the one element missing from the game's interface is a rear-view mirror, which would provide much needed visual feedback as to why and how you are being intimidated by AIs following your car, rather than a simple depletion of your Driver Condition bar. It's not a fatal flaw in the game model by any means, but a curious design choice when the developers have gone to the effort of making the rest of the game's RPG system effects more accessible to the player.
Evolution GT is undoubtedly a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor, and whilst it might not set the racing game genre alight, with its balance of realism and accessibility, the game is still set to provide a lot of racing pleasure for devotees of burnt rubber everywhere.